X-Beyond the Frontier is an interesting title but when I saw the SouthPeak Interactive logo on the box I almost put it back on the shelf. Having experienced first hand the evil that can be wrought with licenses such as Wild Wild West and Dukes of Hazzard, it's safe to say that I'm not SouthPeak's biggest fan (Editor Note: SouthPeak is the distributor of the game in North America.)
It's hard to deny the game's charm; it does have a certain distinctive look to it that's very appealing. The developer, Egosoft, chose to skip the standard "one pilot in a war against the aliens" approach in favor of a more unique storyline.
Players are cast as the test pilot of one of humanity's first ships capable of deep space travel. Of course, the first flight goes wrong and you are stranded in a sector of the galaxy that's so far away that Earth hasn't even been discovered yet. Those in the know might recognize a certain similarity to the Sci-Fi Network's series Farscape. Mega-kudos to Egosoft for having the courage to stay away from one of the more worn development paths. It is always refreshing to see innovation, even in small doses.
X-Beyond the Frontier places a certain emphasis on exploration and provides a large number of systems to explore. The universe is a diverse place, populated with a wide range of species and industry. In a sense, there are overtones of the kinds of exploration that made the Star Control series famous.
The game uses its own graphics engine and, although it is lacking a bit in terms of sophistication, it does manage to do some rather impressive things with lighting and a fairly extensive color palette. These may not be the fanciest of the emperor's robes but it does manage to look good regardless.
You are dropped into a largely commerce driven section of the universe. This "Republicans in space" approach to sci-fi is largely unprecedented. To my knowledge, Privateer and Elite are the only similar beasts out there at the time of release (1999).
There is a surprisingly vibrant soundtrack to be found as well. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the score. It lies somewhere between the realms of classical and new age and fits the mood and tone of the game like a glove. There are shades of many classic influences such as Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 and 2010 that enhance the experience. All of these things are interesting ingredients and make a tantalizing stew. When do we eat?
Unfortunately, dinner isn't very filling. As much as the game has an interesting storyline, it remains completely undeveloped. Instead of spending your time exploring space and the alien cultures surrounding you, most of your time is spent unraveling the events of Earth's past and the subsequent affect of those events on this sector. The phrase "cop-out" springs to mind.
X-Beyond the Frontier's exploration starts out strong and then falls flat on its face the second you encounter a new species. Most of the time, crossing the border happens without a blip. You might think a species would at least investigate unknown ships (as a potential threat). No special interaction with any species takes place unless it has a direct effect on the storyline. For all intents and purposes, the aliens might just as well be various breeds of the same species.
Combat is also laughably simple. Xenon ships attack and retreat in virtually identical patterns every time and pirates make only pathetic token attempts to even defend themselves. Forget your dog-fighting skills, you won't need them.
The graphics engine has potential but it is populated with more ridiculous looking things than the local carnival freak shows. Starship design is terrible and cruisers often look like giant toothbrushes. Astronauts on a space walk look like Gummi Bears. Microscopic stars hit the cockpit, literally. The effect is not completely unlike flies dying on your windshield as you go down the freeway.
For a completely unknown sector of space, the planets bear an awful lot of resemblance to nine planets we all know and love. The game's inhabitants don't know Earth exists but I've seen at least four versions of it. (Would it really cost that much to hire an artist to draw some original planets?). The cumulative effect of all this doesn't completely ruin the game's graphic appeal but it does come close.
Though the game's commerce feature is interesting, it grows very old very quickly. It is based on a simple supply and demand model. The price for any given commodity fluctuates depending upon how much of that commodity is in stock. So, if you choose the "honest trader" approach to the game, you will spend the vast majority of your time seeking out surpluses and selling where there is a shortage.
However, supply and demand (within the game) are not regional averages, they are specific to each business. This creates the intergalactic equivalent of buying cases of Coke at the local King Soopers and re-selling them across the street to the local McDonalds. I'll grant you, the idea is a tad on the ridiculous side but at least it's based on logic and is somewhat plausible. The problem is, though, if you don't enjoy being an intergalactic Fed-Ex man, you will grow very bored of it long before you've even amassed enough credits to advance the story, much less appreciate some of the higher levels in the game.
X-Beyond the Frontier has all the ingredients for a great game but it just simply fails to deliver on all of its promise. The story is too boring to do justice to its concept and the gameplay is too repetitive to capitalize on its relative novelty. This game reminds me of a ferocious, barking toy poodle behind a "beware of dog" sign. Somehow, it manages to be both cool and pathetic at the same time.
Graphics: Distinctive engine, good look, but very poorly used. It's like giving fine paints to a three year old.
Sound: Strong score, very subtle; but sound effects are barely noticeable.
Enjoyment: Excellent concepts but poor execution on all counts.
Replay Value: Plan on losing interest quickly.
People who downloaded X-Gold (X: Beyond the Frontier & X-Tension) have also downloaded:
X2: The Threat, X³: Reunion, X-COM: Interceptor, Wing Commander: Privateer - Gemini Gold, Wing Commander: Prophecy - Gold, Wing Commander 1, Freelancer, Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger
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